The Cleveland Cavaliers seem to be on their way to the NBA Finals for the third consecutive year. But despite that fact, one of the major architects and guiding forces of their roster remains without a contract next season.
No, not LeBron James. We're talking about David Griffin, Cleveland's perennially underrated general manager. In addition to often finding himself as something of a go-between for owner Dan Gilbert and the James camp, as well as the rest of the organization, he also has one of the best personal reputations in the league. But despite the expertise he's shown in an incredibly complicated situation, Griffin has still not been re-signed by Cleveland—or even so much as offered a contract—and that fact is starting to make waves around the league. The Orlando Magic, for instance, have asked the Cavs for permission to talk to Griffin about coming aboard as their president of basketball operations.
So, what exactly is Gilbert doing? What kind of game is he playing here, stringing along a top GM who has shown the ability to work extremely well with the Byzantine organizational relationships of this particular title contender?
One only has to look at Griffin's creative wheeling and dealing and mastery of the NBA's Collective Bargaining Agreement over the last 15 months to realize that he is much more than the James puppet that many take him for. Griffin essentially traded a single, late 2017 first round pick and cash to acquire Channing Frye, Kyle Korver, and a massive trade exception. He also read the market perfectly and landed the backup point guard James coveted for free by waiting until the Dallas Mavericks bought out Deron Williams, who promptly signed in Cleveland. Building around superstars is tougher than it sounds—just ask Danny Ferry, who had mixed results during James' first Cleveland go-around—and Griffin has been terrific in maximizing limited assets. Frye, Korver, and Williams have combined for approximately 48 minutes and 21 points per game in the playoffs; for a defending champion in win-now mode, that's not too shabby.
Griffin has re-tooled the Cavs' roster with one goal in mind: surround his big three talents of James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love with as much floor spacing as possible in order to become unguardable. Given Cleveland's 9-0 record and 120.8 offensive rating in the playoffs, it loks like he has succeeded. So, again, why hasn't Gilbert done whatever it takes to keep Griffin?
There seem to be a few factors at play. First, team executives are only as good as the ownership above them. Gilbert deserves credit for being willing to pay whatever it takes; however, running the Cavaliers has gotten expensive. They have $126 million in salaries on the books, plus what will be a heavy repeater luxury tax penalty projected at approximately $38 million. Gilbert has also shelled out quite a bit of money for failed coaches over the years, with Mike Brown and David Blatt lasting only one year into their lucrative contracts. Then there's current coach Tyronn Lue, who never signed a three-year, $9.5 million offer upon taking the job, and instead inked a five-year, $35 million deal last offseason. That's an awful lot of money to pay for any team, and it's easy to see how the Cavs operated at an estimated $40 million loss.
From Griffin's perspective, maybe he just wants to break out on his own and build a winner without the best player on the planet. It's possible he views a departure as the best way to earn the respect he deserves, and Gilbert's radio silence only reinforces that. That's why it's a mistake not to let Griffin know how much Cleveland values him by making a market-value offer. While the Cavs do get to coast on autopilot more than many front offices due to James's otherworldly talents, that won't be the case as he ages—or if he declines his player option in the 2018 offseason. And the Eastern Conference is getting better, with the vastly improved Boston Celtics ready to use their stockpile of draft picks.
As many teams have learned just in the last decade, finding a good general manager isn't easy. Recently, one NBA executive told me that while there are plenty of intelligent people in front offices, Griffin is one of approximately five that has shown the ability to perform all parts of the basketball ops leadership role at a high level. Gilbert would do well to understand that, and at least make Griffin a competitive offer. Otherwise, he could be searching for his replacement for a long time.
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